I don’t want to be an education entrepreneur and neither should you: Exploring the limits of metaphors in #EdStartUp

Title page to Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning...

Title page to Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Warning: This post ended up being a lot more “negative” and critical than it started out as. I am still quite enjoying the EdStartUp course.

Entrepreneurship and #EdStartup 101

A new MOOC is going on at the moment aimed at educating educators in starting companies (mostly online ones) to implement their ideas. This is the motivation behind the course:

“Colleges of Education across the country and around the world are permeated with the idea that “business” is a dirty word and that the handling of any money beyond a teacher’s basic paycheck demands ritualistic hand washing. The culture in most Colleges of Education is openly anti-entrepreneurial. Consequently, almost no startup companies come from faculty in Colleges of Education, who actually know the “theory” and could potentially help productize it in well-designed ways that would encourage “practice.”"

“And because education faculty don’t start education companies, computer scientists, engineers, and other faculty who don’t know the “theory” are the ones who do. Educators and educational researchers must reclaim entrepreneurship in the education space if we are ever to cross the bridge from theory to practice.” http://edstartup.net/overview/

We can see from the outline above that the idea of a “startup” is closely associated with the notion of “entrepreneurship”. Entrepreneurship is suggested as a generative metaphor for what education could be. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as we realize that that’s what it is.

Metaphor theory sidenote: Generative metaphors are used to come up with new and unexpected perspectives on an existing domain of experience. An example of a generative metaphor first given by Donal A Schon who came up with the term is “paint brush is really a pump” – this allowed engineers trying to come up with a synthetic bristle to abandon the idea of good adhesion and focus on flexibility. This resulted in a technological breakthrough. But it is also important to note that these engineers didn’t go any further than that. Generative metaphors are highly partial and targetted. They don’t have to provide a very good match between the two domains (pumps and paint brushes), just enough of one to allow for a change of perspective. The problem in many cases, though, is that their early success leads us to extendeding them way past their sell by date and not paying attention to when they start being more of a hindrance than an inspiration.

This post looks at the limits of the entrepreneurship metaphor for education. While acknowledging the usefulness of the metaphor for an initial inspiration, it will warn of the danger of not examining points where the metaphor breaks or where the metaphor provides a warning.

What does entrepreneurship mean to us?

Everybody will acknowledge that entrepreneurship is a complex domain. But when it is used as a source for a metaphor, the tendency is to simply go by the stereotypical image. What is this image? Let’s do a bit of linguistic analysis.

The word “entrepreneur” is imbued with all kinds of positive meanings. The top 10 adjectives most often appearing with it (according to COCA) are: SUCCESSFUL, YOUNG, AMERICAN, LOCAL, NEW, REAL, BLACK, SERIAL, SMALL, WEALTHY. With the exception of “serial”, these are all positive adjectives, and serial is given a positive meaning in its coocurrence with entrepreneur. Things get interesting if we don’t limit our search by part of speech. Four of the top 10 words are tech related: INTERNET (2), SILICON (4), VALLEY (5), SOFTWARE (6). By the way, SUCCESSFUL is still number 1 and number 3 is NAMED from “entrepreneur named XYZ” or “named entrepreneur of the year”. So in the last 10-20 years, most of the talk of entrepreneurship is associated with renewal, regeneration and technology (for comparison, the next specific area of entrepreneurship is “real ESTATE” at 10 followed by, TELECOM at 25 and “HIP-HOP” at 30). Even more revealing is the search for the plural form “entrepreneurs” where the second most common word is YOUNG which underscores the strong association with renewal and future oriented nature of the concept in modern usage. (By the way, the single most common word associate with “entrepreneurs” in the COCA corpus is BLACK but this is a result of a sampling coincidence – there are several samples from the publication Black Entrepreneur in the corpus.)

So this is the general picture of entrepreneurship we’re trying to project into the domain of education? But is it a picture that is sufficiently complete for us to make informed decisions. And the answer is absolutely not.

What’s missing from our typical notion of entrepreneurship?

The frequency of the word NAMED also points to the strong mythologizing tendency we have around entrepreneurship. We spend a lot of time telling stories about entrepreneurs and then use these to help us frame discussions around this concept. And as the other words suggest, most of those stories are associated with success. No words associated with failure appear in the top 100 collocates of “entrepreneur” (i.e. words used within 4 – 9 words of the word “entrepreneur”).

Schools as startups? The analogy of failure

That does not mean that we don’t talk about enterprise and failure. There’s even a meme that 9 out of 10 startups fail. But even though it is a part of the conversation, it rarely becomes part of the metaphor. Now, that meme is inaccurate. Less than half of new businesses survive their first five years but that varies by domain so, high tech startups the failure figure at 5 years is between 10 and 25%. However, the massive success rate defined by huge return on investment is also only about 10%. (See http://www.quora.com/What-is-the-truth-behind-9-out-of-10-startups-fail and http://www.newventurelab.com/resources/blog.php?id=261)

Now, we may feel one way or another about this as such. But it should put a huge damper on using the domain of startups as the source domain of inspiration for changing the domain of education. Imagine 25% of schools failing within five years.

But even the definition of success of a startup is sobering in this context. It is defined by “acquisition”, “B round of financing”, “IPO”. And many of these are associated with change of focus, abandonment of founding principles – often called a “pivot” or simply hollowing out of valuable assets with no regard for existing client. Drop.io was a great example of this.

Most children only change schools when moving to a higher grade and a significant change in school organization mostly only happens between generations.

Under the entrepreneurial model, children at both the successful and failing schools would be exposed to constant change. Change in itself may be good or bad for the development of people but most of this change would be driven by purely business motives, not the motives of improvement of education.

And what of the remaining 40-60% of not failure nor successes in the high-tech entrepreneurial space? Well, they are exactly what most schools are today. Mediocre. Not great but not awful.

It seems to me that the last thing we want is for schools to be like startups – at least I don’t think we do.

Teachers as entrepreneurs?

But maybe we want teachers to be like entrepreneurs. Well, I’d suggest not again. The problem with the positive picture of entrepreneurship is that we think the more entrepreneurs the better. But nothing could be further from the truth. The countries with the greatest penetration of small local entrepreneurs are not the likes of United States or the UK but the likes of Somalia and Bangladesh. Wide-spread universal entrepreneurship is typically a sympton of desperation. Most small entrepreneurs around the world eke out a meagre existence because otherwise they would starve. There is nobody who would employ them. There is no virtue in being a small independent trader. And most certainly no innovation. I’ve spent a lot of time in the market places of Central Asia and they are remarkable for most people selling pretty much the same thing. They can’t differentiate on price (much) or quality (much), they’re just there because they don’t have much of a choice. And the development research bears that out.

Even in Silicon Valley (it is said), the largest spurts of entrepreneurship followed bubble bursts and the big players going bust. This meant a lot of talented ex-employees saw no other option than to start their own companies. This led, for example (it is said again), to the burgeoning of Web 2.0 with companies like Delicious, Flickr, Digg, Twitter and YouTube. So as a whole, this spurt of entrepreneurship led to a transformation (most would agree a positive one) in what the online space looks like now.

Education startup bubble: Analogy and history

But what if the education system went through the same type of transformation? We need to look more closely at what actually happened. What happened to the myrriad companies that constituted the Web 2.0 revolution. Some failed (Digg, MySpace), some were bettered by their imitators (Flickr), some were bought (YouTube, Drop.io), some outshone their inspirations (Facebook, Twit), some continue to coexist with their competition in various niches (Vimeo, Diigo, Status.net), some continue to define their space (Google, Amazon, Twitter). When one takes a closer look, the iconic companies spawned a number of imitators that only differed by a small feature. Although the result was revolutionary, the process was one of evolution through natural selection. Lots of mutations succeeding more or less randomly.

But is this what we want in the school system? Maybe, maybe not. Do we need a version of the dot-com bust to come first? And, what would it look like if more teachers or education theorists became entrepreneurs in the mold of the Web 2.0 startup visionaries? We actually have some idea of what that would look like, it’s called the 1960s and 70s. Society was changing and schools were catching up, sometimes getting ahead. A lot of experimentation with democracy went ahead. And a lot of it was pretty successful, and in many ways, it transformed the way we think of what goes on in the classroom. But to the outside world (parents, politicos, Diane Ravitch) it seemed like chaos and a 30-year standards backlash ensued.

Is there really not enough entrepreneurship in education?

Sure, we might say. But very few educators actually behaved like entrepreneurs – they were experimenting with various approaches but not out there on their own, risking their livelihoods. But we have a model of what it looks like when educators become entrepreneurs. Just go to any education exihibition (whether in tech or something else). Loads of teachers who collected years’ worth of worksheets and exercises are selling them in various forms. There’s Tony Buzan with the whole mind mappning business, Lozanov with Suggestopedia. There’s more quack learning methods named after their inventor than you can throw a chalk at. But it’s not just the quacks. Liz and John Soars transformed how English is taught around the world with Headway (and I’m told became millionairs in the process). And look at any textbook of English these days and you will find it full to the brim of Michael Halliday’s functionalism. Dictionaries and grammars are made using the latest advances in corpus linguistics.

Even when it comes to pedagogical innovations and curriculum reforms we see patterns similar to those I sketched out for the startup space. New approaches, methods and curriculum innovations have always been pushed by complex webs of special interests ranging from passionate innovators, desperate parents to religious groups and disability advocacies. They are still being presented to teachers, school boards, policy makers. Just look at the market in textbooks. Or what teacher training institutions do. 1912 is not that much different from 2012. In both periods, the education system was looking to learn from the world of commerce. At the turn of the 20th century, it was Taylorism and industrial efficiency, at the turn of the 21st, it is entrepreneurship. And it wasn’t that different even earlier than that. We now see the progress of education as slow and reliably periodic but each of the waves was full of little ripples most of them long forgotten by time. Kind of like Friendstr.

So, if there really is an “anti-entrepreneurial culture” in the Colleges of Education, it is with an awareness of this background. Educators starting companies is nothing new, educators behaving in an entrepreneurial manner is nothing new, looking to the world of business or commerce for inspiration is nothing new. The consequences of it are relatively well known and not at all uniformly positive.

The grownup start up

We also need to ask what happens to start ups when they grow up and become successful companies. After all, isn’t the point of a start up to become a something that isn’t a start up? These companies start doing things like “leveraging their IP”, “monetizing their clients”, “increasing their market share”, “streamlinging their processes”, “increasing value for shareholders”. These often translate to the purchasing of smaller companies trying new things, suing competitors to prevent them from entering new markets, charging for things that were previously free not because it is necessary but to maintain growth and meet analysts’ expectations, focusing on the clients who generate the most revenue, using sales techniques to create demand where there is no need. None of these are inevitably negative but they are inevitable to some degree. Remember that Blackboard too was once a start up.

It seems that the very premise of the Ed StartUp course is based on a fairly insufficient analysis and more of an impression than solid research of both education and startups.

The theory into practice metaphor: Thoughts and products

So what should educators do in the face of all this commercial activity? EdStartUp suggests that they should shut up and step up providing the analogy of researchers in the STEM field who take their valuable theories and use them to start companies.

But that is to ignore the nature of the theoretical knowledge. In the STEM field, researchers start companies with different kind of knowledge than the one in schools of education. They don’t spin off companies based on being well versed in the “theory of evolution” or even “theory of materials”. They start them using very specific techniques and processes – often those that are not particularly well captured by the theories or fly in the face of these theories (telegraph, flight, speech recognition). These are the algorithms that started Google, chemical processes behind bio med companies, e-ink technology behind eInk, processor techniques behind ARM, or even the coding skills that power Udacity.

But the theory in evidence at the schools of education is not of that nature. Educators talk about constructivism, power relationships, hidden curriculum, socio economic disadvantage. All theories that are inherently skeptical of “productizing” anything. And whenever there is even a hint of a theory that can be neatly packaged up, you can bet, there are several companies trying to sell a product based on it to schools or the government. Synthetic phonics (productized), theory of motivation (productized), memory enhancements (productized), metacognition (productized), anything possible to do with the brain (productized), Virtual Learning Environments (productized).

How do you productize “good classroom management” or “teacher awareness of literacy difficulties”? You can run teacher training courses in it and sell them to schools (done), you can create materials to make this easier and sell them to teachers (done), you can create supplementary materials and sell them to parents (done).

That’s not to say that there is not a gap between theory and practice in education. There is and this website was started in response to that gap. But the gap is because education theory is in itself a practice which makes its use by educators very difficult. Research takes too long to do, the results are published in a way that is inaccessible to educators, it is too expensive, too limited in scope, too expansive in ambition, motivated by theoretical rather than practical interests, etc. But is starting a bunch of companies the right way to “bridge this gap”? Audrey Waters suggested that ed entrepreneurs should read theorists like Dewey and Freire (both educators who put their ideas into practice in different ways without starting companies). But how can somebody who starts out reading Freire, take what she reads in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” and start a business? We could start publishing houses specializing in critical pedagogy and consulting companies doing teacher training. That was done. What sort of business would we start after reading “My pedagogic creed” by Dewey? Hold on, we’d start Montessori schools. A business idea with definite long-term success and proven growth potential.

In fact, when we look around we seem to see nothing but products based on every conceivable theory of education. Many of them don’t look much like modern tech startups with VCs, buzz and exit strategies but is that necessary for a company? There have been education entrepreneurs as long as there has been education. But have these entrepreneurs ever been able to effect positive change on the system as a whole? I don’t see a lot of evidence for it. Just look at for profit universities in the US. To maintain legitimacy, they have to be very conservative. They are selling a product that the customer expects. They seem to innovate on the business front, not on the educational front. The same goes for private schools, tutoring companies or testing conglomerates. All of these represent profitable businesses in the education sector but engage relatively sparingly in pedagogic and curriculum innovation. Remember all the educational CD-ROMs? Most of them were just traditional textbooks with a few more pictures. iBooks will be the same. This is not meaningful innovation.

The seductive nature of metaphor

So why does entrepreneurship seem to be such an intuitively productive metaphor for education? I would suggest, it is at least in part, because we conceive of entrepreneurship in much more uniformly positive terms than education or schooling. We can’t do an exact comparison with the analysis above because the most common adjectives related to schools are things like primary, secondary, etc. But we do find shootings, bullying and drop out rather than success and safety in the top 100. If we only ask for adjectives immediately preceding the word “schools” we get the following adjectives used to evaluate in the top 100: INNER CITY (21), SEGREGATED (25), LOW-PERFORMING (26), SAFE (28), EFFECTIVE (31), PRESTIGIOUS (40), DRUG-FREE (45), WORST (47), IMPROVING (50), HIGH-POVERTY (54), HIGH-NEED (56), STRUGGLING (58), OVERCROWDED (60), FAILING (61), CROWDED (62), CLOSING (63), SECTARIAN (65), EXCELLENT (67), HIGH-PERFORMING (71), LOW-INCOME (77), CRUMBLING (80), TROUBLED (82), HARD-TO-STAFF (81), FINEST (89), LOWEST PERFORMING (93), AFFLUENT (96).

So it’s clear that negativity predominates. And even seemingly positive words like SAFE or EFFECTIVE are often used in a negative context, suggesting that schools really are not safe and are not effective.

So it seems to me that much of what makes tech entrepreneurship so attractive as a metaphor for improving education is its linguistic shininess (or positive semantic prosody to use the technical term) rather than any systemic intrinsic virtue.

Using entrepreneurship as a generative metaphor

So we see that we don’t really want a whole sale projection of the domain of entrepreneurship to the domain of education. Because if we do the analysis, not that much good seems to come out.

But that does not mean, we cannot get useful new perspectives. Although, entreneurship is not in any way new to education and educators are not lagging behind their counterparts in physics and engineering departments (at least not on closer inspection) as much as might at first appear, much could be gained at looking at education in the light of the latest tech startup entrepreneurship. As long we avert our gaze in time before we get blinded by all that shine and our inspiration becomes a cargo cult.

First, there are very useful funding models from Venture Capital to Kiva or Kickstarter-style funding. They are mostly variations on old themes, but still it’s the little things that matter.

Then, there are interesting models of community engagement and crowdsourcing that were not available previously (from Wikipedia to Creative Commons or YouTube and MOOCs themselves).

The incubator model is also worth taking a look at. I can see a lot of potential there. The “intrapreneurship” idea has all the makings of a soon to become annoying and meaningless fad but the underlying metaphor is very interesting.

And, of course, there is the technology itself, both in its technical aspect (like ease of video sharing or content creation via blogging and wikis) and use aspect (like Twitter hashtags and other folksonomies, community building and unconferences [although these are not new]). All of a sudden we can build distributed communities with low barrier to entry and no need for a central maintenance. Again, this is not new, Darwin had his own virtual community of sorts, but only he and his correspondents had access to it. Pamphleteers from Luther to Paine had a blog like impact on their audiences, but the cost of entry was pretty high.

And, of course, we should be inspired by what individual companies do. Despite many questionmarks, Udacity and other MOOC companies are very exciting. TechCrunch, WordPress.com, Delicious, YouTube have also all served as inspirations to education and school aimed products. Portfolio products like Mahara will have learned as much from Facebook as anything.

Some of the slogans and business processes inspired by coding practices like iteration and fast and cheap failure are also very useful inspirations.

We would be silly not to look at the tech startup space and say, this is interesting. Let’s learn as much as we can. But we would be equally silly to say, let’s do everything exactly the way, they do it over there because that’s how we get the cargo coming in again. Here are some of the simplistic equivalencies we would do well to avoid:

  • Entrepreneurial is new and innovative
  • Entrepreneurial is cumulative
  • Entrepreneurial is useful and marketable
  • Having success at running a business is having knowledge about the “right way of running a business”

Alternative metaphors

But part of the generative metaphor process is also looking at alternatives. And I think there are many.

For instance, Open Source project governance models are as useful a model as anything in the startup funding models.

So are Open Source project community organizing and code development. Code sprints, book sprints and bar camps are as useful as anything in the pure startup space.

The idea of coopetition among companies selling products around a shared code base is also much more relevant to education than pure productization.

In fact, I’d say that Open Source projects would be a better starting place for looking for generative metaphor than startup entrepreneurship.

I would certainly recommend that anyone reading TechCrunch or EdSurge also listens to Floss Weekly or Linux Outlaws.

Why I will try to stick with EdStartUp

I signed up for EdStartup 101 on the strength of David Wiley. I follow his writing on open educational resources and his Open Education course is one that I always give as an example of how a MOOC should be done (even if it is relatively small).

And indeed, the Education Startup course is organized exactly the way I think such a course should go. No cumbersome LMS/VLE, no lock in of the work students produce, no single platform for discussion. I also love the openness about participant motivations.

But I am very skeptical of the course premise which I think is reflected in the curriculum. Part of the MOOC idea is that participants are co-creators of the curriculum. Yet, there is talk of the right and wrong way to do business. To me, this seems to fly in the face of what we know. There is some useful learning out there from successes and failures. And successful entrereneurs seem to do better the second time around (though not even 50% of them). But who could have predicted the success of Twitter and the failure of Pets.com? It seems to me that there’s not much that separates Digg from Reddit in terms of business models. If anything, Digg was following the entrepreneurial script better than Reddit. There is not much that MySpace has done wrong in basic business terms. Sometimes companies without any business plan thrive and companies going by the book whither on the vine. Great companies selling great product still go out of business because of hard luck or just bad timing. So I think I would would prefer that the “experts” are positioned more as live case studies and advisors.

Having said all that, I am enjoying the course so far because the open design brings ideas into the open. But I hope I will learn more than what the curriculum lays out.

  • audreywatters

    Thank you for this post. (For some reason I wasn’t subscribed to your blog, but I am now!) This has helped clarify a lot of things about my own discomforts describing even what I do as entrepreneurial or as a startup. I have the same discomforts with the class, and I actually hadn’t tuned in for the last few weeks, but did because I like Jim Groom a lot and wanted to hear his perspective.


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